All Roads Lead to You
Author's Note: This is quite a bit more serious than my other two fics for this fandom, but I hope it still can entertain. Also, just an aside, I am aware that I got the timing of Ben's mayoral run slightly wrong (by about six months), but by the time I had figured it out this piece was half way written and other parts depended on this timing to work. So grant me a little artistic license.
When Benjamin Wyatt is six he plays George Washington in the School President's Day play.
His mother makes cherry pie the night before, and his father spends the evening telling him all about the great accomplishments of the "Father of our Country."
Fourteen years from now he'll sit down with the biographies of Adams and Jefferson. Read about the protests of Rutledge and Dickinson. The conniving of Franklin and the originality of Madison, and understand America's birth was far more complicated, tumbling into being like a bastard child, half improvised, half compromised, and no less wonderful for its ignoble roots. But for now he sits curled up on the corner of the couch and dreams his father's dream of a simple, noble land, led by great men who always knew the right thing to do.
The next day his whole family sits in the front row to watch and clap and tell him how great he did.
When it comes time to say "I cannot tell a lie," he forgets his lines.
Everyone still tells him he was wonderful.
Twelve years from now he will wish that someone had pulled him aside and said "you should have practiced more."
When Leslie Knope is seven she protests the lack of female representation in the town Fourth of July Pageant (because Lady Liberty does not properly represent the true contribution of women to the development of the nation). Everyone smiles and pats her on the head and offers to let her play Betsy Ross (which is of course only moderately better).
She comes as Susan B. Anthony, gives a three minute improvised speech on her contribution to women's suffrage and gets a half-hearted round of applause.
Alexander Pinkel messes up the opening to the Gettysburg Address and the crowd goes wild.
Her mother takes her to JJ's afterwards for waffles to cheer her up. "Don't worry about all those other people. It was a lovely job dear. Though you should have spent some time on the controversy surrounding Anthony's opposition to the 15th amendment."
She will be thirty six before she stops measuring her success by her mother's approval.
Leslie loses her first student council election in sixth grade. (She will continue to run every year until she graduates from high school. She gets elected once in tenth grade, only to lose the following year to a pretty brunette, foreign exchange student who was a write in candidate).
She still organizes the school carnival, the class gift and her ten year reunion because there is a difference between being a student representative and actually representing the students, and Leslie has always only cared about the later.
At her fifteen year class reunion, she's elected Most Spirited and Most Likely to Succeed.
She never ran for either.
And it means ten times more.
His freshman year Ben's elected class president, and if you asked him, he couldn't tell you when he decided to run. In a way it happens by default. He's small town popular for reasons that have nothing to do with who he is and everything to do with the fact he's reasonably decent looking, occasionally funny, and his parents own the hardware store.
And every year everyone will simply assume he's running, and every year he won't know how to say no, because he's terrified someone might see how scared he is, how shy.
May of his senior year three things happen that change Ben Wyatt's life forever.
The mayor of Partridge has a heart attack and dies.
Cindy Eckert turns him down for the prom in front of everyone at Jeremy Templeton's party with a biting, "Come ask again when you're important."
And because he's a little bit drunk and an eighteen year old boy and has maybe started to believe his own bullshit he yells back, "Just wait, I'm going to run this town. You'll be begging to date me."
Somehow by Monday this has transformed itself into a declaration of his candidacy, and the hallways are buzzing with excitement at the prospect, and absolutely no one is talking about his disastrous personal failure with Cindy. And because that matters, because of his stupid, stupid teenage pride, he laughs and high fives and pretends that was exactly what he meant.
After all what's the harm? He'll never win in a million years.
Leslie clips his picture out of her issue of "People" and puts it up on her dorm room wall along with the other current important political figures of the era because anyone who can be elected mayor at eighteen is bound to be one of the leading lights of their generation.
Her roommate, Courtney, looks up from her script to scrutinize the addition with raised eyebrows. "Finally Knope, some eyecandy."
"That's not-" Leslie flushes, trips a little over her words, "He's going to be governor one day. You don't talk like that about a future governor."
Courtney shrugs and goes back to marking up her script. "Whatever, I'd do him."
Ew. That's so not the point.
(She'll have forgotten all of this by the time she meets Ben, only to have it come flooding back in an embarrassing rush, complete with Courtney's commentary, when he tells her who he is. And for a split second she's angry with him, angry that he's not a governor, that he's just a mean, cynical, town-destroying bureaucrat. Just this awful, fragile, confusingly real human being.
She says the first thing that comes to her head and thanks god when he takes it to mean cute like a puppy and not cute like 'I had a picture of you taped up in my freshman dorm room.' Because she didn't mean it that way at all . . . That would be weird.)
The night the election results are announced Cindy Eckert pulls him away from his victory celebration in the school gymnasium and into an abandoned classroom with a coquettish, "Mr. Mayor."
She lets him get all the way to third base before someone comes looking for them.
He feels like the king of the whole damn world.
His father can't stop smiling, puts his campaign posters up in the windows of the store and goes around town talking to everyone about "my son the mayor."
Later when it's all over, when everything's crumbled to dust between his fingers, and Cindy takes her phone off the hook, and he has to drive thirty miles over to the next county just to be able to buy gas in peace, it will be the shame on his father's face that makes him leave. The physical pain of having to see it across the dinner table night in and night out, of having to watch his dad take the posters down and lose his seat on the Chamber of Commerce, of walking by the store late at night and looking up to see his mother's head bent over the accounts, trying to find money that isn't there, and knowing this is all his fault.
Of never being able to be sorry enough.
He starts to apologize, to explain himself, to just fucking scream 'why didn't you stop me' a dozen times a day, but it feels like he lost his voice with his office, and what would he say anyway?
(The year he graduates from college his parents close the store.
He never goes back to Partridge.)
Ben takes a late admission and a financial aid package to Purdue. Has to look up West Lafayette, Indiana on the map and hopes that means it's far enough.
He leaves that summer. Get's a bad haircut and a work-study job driving a campus bus. Gets a roommate named Steve with a collection of Star Wars memorabilia and even less interest in reliving high school than him
Learns all the lines to the 'Empire Strikes Back,' and relearns how to laugh. Lives on Ramen noodles and bad coffee. Buys button down shirts at the thrift store just because the eighteen year-old him wouldn't and wears them like they're a hair shirt, until they become a statement. Enrolls in the accounting program as some kind of penance and discovers a talent he never anticipated. Picks up biographies of presidents at the library searching for the gods of his father, and discovers only men.
Says 'no' when someone suggests he run for Treasurer of the Accounting Association his sophomore year.
Slowly but surely he remakes himself, little by little, different decision by different decision. Until one morning he wakes up and looks in the mirror and doesn't feel like a complete and utter fraud.
Until he thinks he might be meeting Ben Wyatt for the very first time.
Her senior year Leslie takes part in organizing her campus's 'Rock the Vote' voter registration drive. And because their counterparts at Purdue came down to help out with theirs, three weeks before the presidential election she piles in a car with four other students and makes the trek up to West Lafayette from Bloomington. Because some things transcend rivalries (and she not so secretly lives for this).
It's the most exciting thing she's ever been a part of. MTV is here organizing an evening concert and shooting video for their national events. They even sneak into one of the all male dormitories and go door to door registering people, like secret ninja politicos.
She's with Heather, a tall, lithe red-head with body like Cindy Crawford and a mind like Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, so the guys don't object having their Saturday mornings interrupted too terribly much.
Well most of them.
Some jerk at the end of the hall doesn't even let her get the "Are you registered?" out. Just takes one look at her t-shirt and slams the door in her face.
Ben leans back against the door and has a panic attack. He's hyperventilating, his eyes squeezed shut, his hand still rigid on the door knob. And somewhere on the other side of the door, the perky blonde demon who showed up unasked for and unwanted is still talking, loudly, still telling him about his patriotic duty, and how if 'you don't choose you lose.'
And it's everything he can do not to laugh, not to cry, not to yank open the door and scream that she doesn't have the first fucking clue what she's talking about.
Instead he just calls back, "I don't vote."
His voice sounds eerily calm. Too calm. He's a mess. He's unraveling. He's having a ridiculous conversation with a too persistent blonde through a door because he can't trust himself to do it face to face. And why? Why won't she just go away?
There's a pause, and for a second he holds his breath and thinks maybe she's done just that. Maybe she's given up on him, and there's a strange thread of disappointment at the idea because there should still be idealists in this world, because he thought she had more spunk.
Then, "Decisions are made by people who show up." And it's a terrible cliché, but she says it with such earnestness, that it sounds fresh and new, hits him square in the gut like a sucker punch, like a revelation. There's a rustle of something, and then a flyer and a voter registration card slips under the door to rest between his feet. "If you don't want to go through life letting other people call the shots for you, you should show up."
He stares down at the papers for a long time.
By the time he opens the door to apologize, they're halfway up the stairs to the next floor.
Steve comes back to find the concert flyer still on the floor of the room, and Ben lets himself get dragged out because they're too broke to pass up a night of free food and drink and entertainment, and not at all because he can't get the sound of her voice out of his head.
It's halfway through the evening before he sees her, or who he assumes must be her because he never actually saw her face, can't even see it now really. She's standing in the middle of the room surrounded by a group of students all wearing the same t-shirt, bobbing along in time to the music, throwing her head back to scream "You Gotta Rock the Vote" at random intervals, and he just catches glimpses in the lights, the flash of her hair, the curve of her neck, the twist of her wrist above her head.
She's an impression, a fairytale, an unreal creature, impossibly bright, so bright it hurts to look, and he can't tear his gaze away.
"Dude, am I dreaming or are you checking out a girl?"
He never even heard Steve come up.
"No- it's nothing, just a- you know I was a jerk, felt bad." And he's trying to be casual about it, but he can't quite pull it off, and Steve is in love with his female engineering partner and wants the world to come with him.
"No way, this is momentous. This could be like life changing. Which one is she? The red head?"
Ben doesn't answer, but at that moment he hears the sound of her laugh, and his eyes swing toward her like a compass finding true north. Steve follows the line of his gaze and smiles.
"Oh, oh the blonde? She's totally in your league." And then before Ben can stop him, Steve's plunged into the crowd, making a beeline for the group. Leaving Ben to hide behind a pillar and wonder how he has less self-confidence than a guy with a Han Solo costume in his closet.
Ten minutes later Steve's reemerged and is yelling at him over the din, "Her names like Lizzy or Lisa or something. Couldn't hear. But I got this." He presses a handbill into Ben's hand. "They're gonna be there later, you should go."
Leslie gets stood up five times before she graduates from college.
Six if you count the "friend" of that guy at Purdue who never comes to the bar, which she doesn't because he was so obviously made up and she totally knew that.
He stands in the corner of the bar and watches them play trivia in a funny Purdue versus IU grudge match without the grudge. The questions are bizarrely focused—American history and current politics only—and Purdue is getting its ass kicked because of her.
Ben can almost keep up, could give his school a fighting chance if he joined them. But he doesn't. He doesn't because Steve's wrong. Because she's not in his league, not even in his universe. At best she belongs to some parallel version of him, someone he could have been, some better, more worthy Ben who didn't ruin a town or slam a door in her face, who just had the fucking courage to show up.
He goes back out, gets in his car and drives.
He's halfway through Ohio before he realizes what he's doing.
She has sex for the first time that night. Let's Michael, the Purdue volunteer coordinator, take her back to his apartment because he calls her pretty and buys her drinks and says Hilary Clinton is the best First-lady since Eleanor Roosevelt.
And maybe she does it a little bit because a guy, who doesn't exist, never showed.
But it's the first time she can remember that any guy has ever looked at her when Heather is in the room, and that means something. (More than it should, though less than she wants). And Michael is sweet and embarrassed and still there in the morning.
It doesn't stop her from staring up at the ceiling when it's over and wondering what the big deal is.
He drives straight through to the D.C., rolls in to town at eleven the next morning strung out on gas-station coffee and stale donuts and self-loathing.
There's no plan to this. No logic or reason why he's here. Except he's never seen the Washington monument or visited the Smithsonian and he's got a blank voter registration card tucked in his jacket pocket and a dog-eared copy of David McCullough's 'Truman' in the front seat of his car. And it all just feels like it should mean something.
He spends the day playing tourist. Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Buys a disposable camera and take pictures not of the monuments, but the people. Families searching for names at the Vietnam wall, school children chasing each other up the steps of the Lincoln memorial. Fathers reading the Declaration of Independence aloud at the National Archives.
That evening he lets himself get picked up by a petite, blonde, Georgetown law student who wasn't his type until twenty-four hours ago. Still isn't his type, really, too tarnished, too cynical, an imperfect tin-type of a woman whose name he doesn't even know, and he's ninety nine percent certain he made up.
But God that one-percent haunts him, makes him sweep his hand along the girl's collar-bone with more reverence than appropriate, kiss her with more need than he feels, and pretend.
He sneaks out before dawn, unable to face the stark reality of daylight, of his own deficiencies reflected back at him in all the things she isn't and he wants her to be.
Ends up watching the sunrise over the National Mall from the steps of the Jefferson Memorial, rolling the disposable camera in his hands, thinking about all those people. About War veterans who still salute the flag and those who don't. About families reading words written by men over two hundred years ago. About those men compromising one ideal for the sake of another, about the thousands upon thousands of mistakes that built this country.
About showing up to make them.
He fills out the voter registration card and drops it in the mail before he has a chance to change his mind.
Next summer he'll take a transfer down to IUPUI and a job as a file clerk at the state-house in Indianapolis. Doubles up on his accounting courses and starts on a Masters in Public Administration.
Never quite gets over his thing for blondes.
Leslie's father leaves three weeks before her graduation.
Her mother puts a brave face on it (she's so strong), but Leslie knows she must be devastated, so of course she goes home to Pawnee at the end of the semester.
People tell her she's crazy. Even her mother tells her to not to waste her life. But there's nothing about Pawnee that's a waste. And it's her mother, and how could she do anything else?
She rescues her father's photographs from the trash can and secretes the rest of his belongings to a storage locker when her mom's at work. Makes brownies at one a.m. when she comes downstairs to find her mother up reviewing the school board budget for the fifth night in a row. The fall comes and she runs a phone bank for the new bond referendum Marlene Griggs-Knope is working to push through, and really you can't pay for this kind of hands on experience.
Still for some reason she finds herself out on the swings in Ramsett Park at midnight in the November chill, pumping herself higher and higher until she feels like she might lose control, like any second now she might go flying.
And in her mind she's eight years old, screaming and laughing simultaneously. Higher Daddy Higher. But her Dad left them both, and her Mother never said 'I'm sorry,' never asked 'are you okay?', and it hurts so damn much she can't breathe.
She scrapes the heels of her tennis shoes along the gravel, brings the swing to a shuddering stop, and cries for the first time since she came home.
There's a job in the State budget office that her mentor sent her an email about last week. Leslie thinks maybe she should take it.
She's leaving Ramsett park when she sees the bulletin posting about openings in the City government, stops to run her finger idly down the list, not expecting anything. Pauses on the notice for a Project Manager in the Parks Department.
Higher Daddy Higher.
Maybe it's fate, or maybe it's just that she really doesn't want to leave Pawnee.
Either way it feels right.
Ben lands a job in the State Budget office the last semester of his third and final year of his Bachelors, keeps working there through his Masters Degree.
The irony is not lost on him.
But it feels right, feels good and responsible and a lot less like atonement than he expected.
And maybe it's not education or law enforcement or health care. But its all of them, it's everything. It's tax cuts and teacher salaries. It's funding new community clinics in central Indiana and road repairs up North. It's taking apart a proposal to build a camp for troubled girls in Southern Indiana and marking up all the ways it's unsustainable and will be short money within two years, before it has the chance to fail and take dreams down with it.
Ben slips the proposal for 'Camp Athena' into the interoffice envelope with his "recommendation not to fund" memo on top. Walks over to the map of Indiana and traces the Interstate south until he finds Pawnee. Two rivers and four state parks and a boy scout camp not that far away. He thinks it must be beautiful there, must be exactly the kind of place you'd want to imagine children getting help.
He skips his evening classes and stays up until three reworking the numbers, revising his recommendation to "Conditional Funding." It might take them three years to get all the pieces in place and who knows if the money will even be there, but there's a spirit in this that makes him think of trivia games and panic attacks, of sunrises over the Jefferson Memorial and showing up.
Somewhere, someone in Pawnee is showing up in spades, and he can't bring himself to say don't.
Leslie sleeps with Mark the night they break ground on Camp Athena. They go out for dinner to celebrate and drink too much wine, and when he says, "You know honestly, I never thought that Camp would happen in a million years," she hears 'You're amazing.'
She hasn't had sex since she broke up with her last boyfriend a year ago, and it's the last thing on her mind when she invites him in for coffee. (She does in fact make coffee, but Mark spikes it with the bourbon she bought for a special occasion and forgot about.) They sit on the couch and swap Ron Swanson stories and she tells him her dreams for the camp, and he tells her about the forty-five hours he's sunk into the review of parking lot requirements. And when she says, "But think about how much of a difference a good parking lot can make in your day," and means it (because really think about it), Mark just looks over at her and laughs in that way that says he'll never quite understand her.
Only when his laughter trails off, and his smile drops away, he's still staring at her, looking at her like he's never seen her before.
The next thing she knows he's leaning over and kissing her and she's kissing him back.
The sex is sloppy and frantic, and she feels a little wanton, sleeping with a colleague; feels like someone else, sleeping with Mark because he's never looked at her twice. But she thinks maybe this is it, maybe this is supposed to happen, maybe this is what she's been waiting for.
Come morning Mark is gone and there's a note on her kitchen table that says "Thanks for letting me stay over," and she's still waiting.
Ben takes his first out of town assignment a week after he breaks up with his girlfriend of two years. It's mutual and ridiculously civil and it hurts how much it doesn't hurt, how much it feels like a waste in retrospect.
The assignment seems like a good idea at the time, a chance to get away, to reevaluate. He's good at throwing himself into work and he'll be living out of a hotel room anyway. And after all, if any one can relate to this town's problems it's him.
Only he can't.
He can't relate to these people at all. These supposed pillars of society who've destroyed their town out of nothing more than incompetence and negligence and in one case involving the waste disposal contracts—greed.
When that part rises to the surface and he reads the story the numbers are telling him he nearly chokes on his anger. Throws his beer bottle against the hotel room wall and winds up breaking the glass on the starving artist painting above his bed.
What's your excuse? He wants to scream, I was only eighteen years old and naïve and trying to do something good and what the hell is your excuse?
He guts the entire works with a machete, strips the town to its bones and topples a founding family. He gets death threats and goes back to living on Ramen Noodles because no restaurant will serve him and doesn't feel a single ounce of remorse.
The assignment and its subsequent fraud investigation, makes his career, but it also makes his reputation. People hate him preemptively. Towns lobby to have someone else come in. So it's no surprise when his boss calls him in to his office during one of his rare hiatuses. He's been half expecting it, maybe half hoping for it. This isn't what he signed up for, and he sometimes thinks of how the blonde on the other side of his dorm room door never would have wanted this and sometimes he thinks this is exactly what he was meant to do.
He needs his boss to bench him, because he's not sure he can do it himself.
Instead he gets paired with Chris.
For the first month it feels like his own personal brand of hell. Like this is all some practical joke because Chris can't possibly be real and what is his function any way?
But Chris makes people feel safe, makes them believe there's a light at the end of the tunnel. He calms down a union meeting that's one step away from devolving into a full-fledged riot and talks a school board president out of going to the press. And when Ben has a skittish payroll specialist in the public works department that makes alarm bells go off, he doesn't hesitate to call the other man in to get the woman to talk.
They go out for a beer that night, and Ben takes a moment to absorb the fact this is the first bar he's been able to set foot in since he started doing this job. And when he finds himself confessing his past to the first person since Steve, Chris just leans forward and says in all seriousness, "That must give you an invaluable perspective."
When their boss sends him an email to check in on how the partnership is going, Ben only hesitates a moment before typing, "Great." A second after he hits send, he realizes he might not even be lying.
Ben knows he's in trouble the first time Leslie Knope yells at him. Suddenly he's twenty-one, having a panic attack inside his dorm room, and for a fleeting second he thinks he might wind up at the Jefferson Memorial all over again.
Instead he cuts the meeting the short, gathers up his things, goes back to the temporary office and shuts his door. Leans back against it and tries not to think about opportunities he didn't take.
He's ninety-nine percent certain he made her up. Ninety-nine percent positive no one could ever be so impossibly bright.
But Leslie Knope is already burned on his retinas, and god that one percent haunts him.
The fact she's blonde doesn't help at all.
The last night of Harvest Fest, she can't sleep. Makes her way out to the fairgrounds and wanders around the remnants with a sadness that feels out of place. Everything went better than she could have hoped, and she should feel giddy, triumphant.
But instead she feels let down, feels like she's saying goodbye to something she's never actually had.
Leslie sits down in one of the bumper cars, stares up at the sky, at a Harvest moon that takes her breath away, and starts to name the stars.
"I thought I might find you here."
The sound of Ben's voice makes her mouth curve in a way that five months ago she would never have thought possible, and she lolls her head to the side to look up at him. "Hey."
It comes out soft and shy. Not at all the way she meant, but Ben just smiles back. "Hey."
For a second neither one of them says anything, and her heart starts a funny cadence in her chest. Then Ben lifts two beer bottles in silent offering and everything's normal again.
She scoots over and pats the seat beside her, realizing belatedly it will be a tight fit for two people who aren't anything more than colleagues with benefits. But the next car is four feet over and feels like it might be a million miles away.
Ben compromises by sitting up on the back of car and propping his feet on the front, smiles down at her with a mixture of shyness and self-deprecation, she can't help but return.
They stay like that for awhile, drinking their beers in silence, and there's a hundred unsaid things hanging between them, things with too much weight and power that she's just now giving names, and she doesn't know how to say any of them.
Says, "Thank you," instead.
Ben frowns down at her like he doesn't understand. "For what?"
"This." She gestures towards the midway with her beer bottle, "All of it."
He shakes his head, "This is all you. I'm just the numbers robot, remember?"
"Are not," she insists nudging his thigh with her shoulder.
"Am too," he nudges back.
They keep it up, the protests devolving into laughter as the nudges become more playful, until he's hunched over clutching his gut, and she's resting her head against his thigh to catch her breath. And then she looks up and he looks down and they're not laughing at all.
"You're more than a numbers robot, you know?"
Ben sucks in a breath, his fingers going still against the nape of her neck, and for second she thinks he's going to kiss her, thinks she's going to let him.
He sits up and gives her a lopsided smile, "Oh no, it's official. Tom made a plaque."
Looks away and takes a long pull on his beer.
Leslie blinks, dizzy and off-kilter, feels like her world has tilted on it axis, and suddenly it hits her, why she's not happier, why it feels like she's losing even though she's won.
"Leslie? You okay?"
She shakes her head, without realizing what she's doing. And his hand goes back into her hair, steadying her like it's a compulsion, like its what he was made to do, and how? How had she not noticed, how had she not felt him there, seeping into her spaces, and smoothing out her cracks until she's this new thing, until she's not sure how she'll survive having him ripped away.
And she's angry and terrified and why? Why did it have to be him? What right does he have to take away her independence?
"Leslie-" he whispers it like regret, like an apology for sins beyond his control, but his hand is still in her hair and his forehead has dropped to hers and it's too much, it's all just too much.
She brings a hand up to his wrist intending to pull away, to extricate herself.
And everything breaks.
Ben kisses her like he's drowning, like he expects her to vanish if he gives her half a chance.
But she's not going anywhere. How could she? Where would she go? Somehow he's slid down onto the seat and she's accommodated the addition by straddling him and the world is here, is them in this bumper car, his lips on her collar-bone, and his fingers at her waist band.
The small of her back bangs the steering wheel, and she yelps in pain and surprise, and it's enough to momentarily break the spell.
Ben's fingers tighten on her hipbones, and he drops his head to the curve of her neck, "Don't say that. Please, don't say that."
The desperation in his voice makes her lose her train of thought, makes her wonder why earth she was protesting, but then she bumps the steering wheel again and remembers.
"Where?" He whispers and then his mouth is just behind her ear distracting her and not at all appropriately focused on solving their dilemma.
"Um- we could- Oh god- . . . My house. My house is closest."
The walk back to their cars is strangely chaste, almost shy, considering what they were doing not two minutes ago. The shift makes her nervous, makes her fumble with the keys and half expect him to back out. Then Ben is behind her, sliding his hand around to press the unlock button on her keys and whisper with a smile she can feel against her neck, "Go slow okay? I don't want to lose you."
She's half way home when she realizes her house is a mess. Realizes she doesn't have any food and there's no space to even sit on her couch and she always spent the night at Dave's, which means the last time a guy slept over he left before she woke up. And she just knows that if Ben does that it won't take her five years to get over him, it will take her five hundred.
But she's pulling into her driveway, and he's pulling in behind her, and she doesn't even care that possibly all of Pawnee knows what his rental car looks like (it got egged five times the first month), she just doesn't want him to change his mind.
Leslie's hand stalls half-way through the process of unlocking her front door, and Ben's heart stops.
So many reasons. There are so many reasons this is a bad idea, not the least of which involves the possibility that he's setting himself up to have his heart shattered. But he doesn't care. This feels inevitable, inescapable, like it's been a constant in his life for longer than possible. Because he only met her five months ago, but he feels like he's wanted her forever.
"Leslie?" Her name on his lips is soft, tentative. Because he might have been living with this so long that he can't remember a day when he wasn't imagining some variation of what's happening right now, but it's obviously new to her, a fragile just discovered thing, to be treated with rare delicacy lest it break.
She looks up at him a shaky smile, and this might be the first time he's ever seen Leslie Knope scared. "Just- Just be here in the morning, okay?"
And he wants to ask 'Who hurt you?', but he's half-afraid the answer's no one, that there's still some part of her who simply believes the worst of him. The memory of leaving a Georgetown apartment at four am to watch the sun rise over the Washington Monument flits across his mind, and he hates himself that she's not wrong.
But he's already seen her in the sunlight, and she's everything he wishes she was and more.
And he wants to see dawn on her skin and watch her eat waffles at appropriate times, wants to know whether she sleeps on the right or the left side of the bed, if she showers first thing or waits for coffee. He wants to learn if she's ticklish or if she snores, wants to make a long and thorough study of every detail and god . . . he needs all the time she'll give him.
"I'll be here."
And he is.
She has a minor panic attack when she wakes to find the bed empty, only to roll over and see him sitting on the floor in his boxers, paging through a twenty-year old Time magazine like the fact that she has three boxes of back issues in her bedroom is the most natural thing in the world.
Ben looks up at her and smiles. Leslie blushes. "I keep meaning to clean up, but-"
"No, it's-" he looks around her bedroom, taking everything in from the old parks posters in the corner to the clay-pots she made when she was five. "It's perfect."
"Don't lie." She admonishes, because it's not. It's far from perfect. It's the clutter of three lifetimes because she bought the house when her mother wanted to sell it to strangers and move into a condo, and it's her father's bird houses and her mother's newspapers and even though they threw her childhood away like garbage Leslie can't bring herself to do the same.
"I'm not. I-" he sets down the magazine and looks at her. "I have exactly seven pieces of furniture, if you count the T.V. If my apartment burned down tomorrow, I can't think of a single thing there that isn't replaceable. I've lived half my life in hotel rooms and out of suitcases and I've never kept a back issue of a single magazine. This is . . ." he breathes, "amazing."
She wraps the sheet around her body and comes to join him on the floor. Pulls another magazine out of the box and starts to tell him about breaking her arm the week this came out.
They go like that for hours, stopping only for coffee and pancakes she didn't even know she had the mix for. Weave national events together with childhood memories, until it doesn't feel separate, doesn't feel like her past or his but theirs. Until she knows where he was when the Challenger exploded and the Towers fell as completely as she knows herself.
Ben reaches in to the box to pull out another one, starts to turn it over with a smile then stops, and suddenly there's a tension in his body, a rigidity to his muscles that makes her look over.
Janet Reno stares back at her from the cover of 'People' and . . . Oh.
"Ben, don't." She makes a grab for it, but he turns away.
"No this is good. I haven't looked at this in, god . . . This is good."
"No- you don't-" But he's already reached the page where his picture should be and isn't, and he's staring at the tear and she can feel the flush on her cheeks, so hot it might burn.
"Wow, you must have really hated me."
She shakes her head, "I didn't."
"Just desperately needed lining for a birdcage?"
"No, I-" and she doesn't want to say it, but she can't let him think what he does, and it all come out in a rush. "."
"When I was nineteen. I cut it out and put it on my dorm room wall when I was nineteen and you'd just gotten elected." She ducks her head in embarrassment, and adds, "I had the biggest crush on you."
She expects laughter, expects teasing or even cocky smile, because what guy wouldn't love to know he was a teen idol for at least one girl? But that's not what she gets. Ben reaches out and touches the tips of her fingers, then her hand, slides along the length of her arm and up curve of her shoulder. It's strange and hesitant, like he can't believe she's real, like he needs the physical proof, but is afraid of breaking the illusion.
"What are you-?"
He kisses her, soft and long and sweet. Breathes her in and whispers nonsense against her skin.
"When I was twenty-one, I made you up."